In 2001, the term “Agile software development” was created - it referred to flexible and iterative software development. In the UX world, the term ‘Agile UX’ has taken the route of ‘Lean UX’. Both the terms have been used interchangeably at numerous workplace or coffee table conversations. Among members of the product team, ‘Agile’ is perceived being flexible and creating fast, building better collaboration among software and design professionals.
Since Agile was made by software development fraternity, the process naturally does not inherit the UX Design angle. Therefore in Agile based product development, the ‘learning’ happens through continuous experimentation potentially causing a disconnect from the original product that was envisioned in UX Strategy (if one exists). UX Design, by its very nature advocates for User research upfront, immediately after market research.
In many real life product creation projects that take an Agile approach, even user validation tends to get skipped. The main reasons behind that problem could range from unavailability of team members, delays in readiness of a prototype to having access to right users to Test with. For such projects, unmoderated user testing platforms that offer automated recruitment of respondents are the best bet.
In integrating UX Design and Agile / Lean UX (there is a book for it Lean UX, 2nd edition, by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden), Design Sprint by Google Ventures is a methodology to solve business problems through design, prototype and user testing. Users are supposed to be involved. While a problem can be broad or well-scoped, Design Sprint does not advocate eliminating User Research. In fact Google Design Sprint advocates - To build an understanding of your customer base and their problems it is a good idea to conduct user research.
The question then is: When doing User Research makes most sense? Before, during, or after creation of the product? For organizations involved in product creation, it's very important to keep aside time for User research, arguably before the business planning. Product development can follow the business planning via separate projects. This User Research takes the form of behavioural research i.e. ethnographic field studies, Participatory Design as well as attitudinal research i.e. Focus groups, In-depth interviews, Diary studies and surveys. The outcome of this research should feed into the UX strategy and further into business planning. The Agile projects can then spawn from the business planning.
At the essence of it all, Agile must not be mistaken as an excuse to eliminate or minimise User testing and User research. The value of User Research in Design is to build a product vision that needs to be kept together and across team members, products and during product development. Without the foundation of User research, pushing out product features fast enough can feel satisfying in the short run. In the long-term, products driven by software than product vision have not shown to drive brand loyalty. Building a solution to a real user problem is prudent instead of the quickest solution to solve a non existent problem.